Elena Baltacha’s fight against illness to become tennis champion features in new documentary

The inspirational story of Elena Baltacha, one of the world’s top tennis stars who tragically died aged 30, will be told in a new documentary to be shown on BBC Alba.

Monday, 25th November 2019, 4:58 pm
The new documentary tells the story of Scottish world-leading tennis player Elena Baltacha's career and life.
The new documentary tells the story of Scottish world-leading tennis player Elena Baltacha's career and life.

Elena Baltacha is the incredible story of the extraordinary life and career of a feminist icon and role model who overcame serious illness to become a tennis champion.

Sport was in Elena’s blood – her mother Olga represented the former USSR as an athlete, and her father Sergei was a USSR international footballer.

Elena made it into the top 50 ranking players in the world, despite the difficulties that she faced due to her debilitating illness, which affected her liver.

Elena's father Sergei (left) talks about his daughter's life and tennis career in the documentary, and is joined by Elena's Federation Cup captain Judy Murray, coaches Jimmy McKechnie and Alan Jones, and her husband Nino Severino.

In 2012, Elena realised a lifelong dream when she was selected for the GB team for the Olympic Games in London 2012, following in her father’s footsteps.

The talented tennis player tragically died from liver cancer in 2014, when she was just 30 years old.

She had only been married to her tennis coach and partner, Niño Severino, for five months when she passed away.

This feature-length documentary film tells Elena Baltacha’s story from her beginnings in the former USSR to her new life in Scotland, and celebrates her career successes.

Photographs of Elena as a youngster.

It gives a unique insight into the woman behind the racquet; the daughter, sister and friend who was loved so dearly, with her story told through the testimony of Elena’s family – her father Sergei, her brother Sergei (a Scotland Under-21 football international), her sister-in-law Rosie, and her husband Niño Severino.

In the documentary, Niño explains Elena was determined to build her career around the illness and not focus on it.

He said: “I used to say ‘you need to tell people how difficult it is for you with primary sclerosing cholangitis’ and she said ‘I don’t want to be defined as that girl with liver disease, I don’t want to talk about it’.

“And I said ‘if that’s the way you want to handle it then we’ll do it like that’ but it was very difficult because it was a really serious disease and I don’t think both of us knew the extent of the disease.

Elena's niece and nephew Ana and Alex Baltacha play the roles of Elena and her brother Sergei in the documentary.

“Now after going through the nightmare I realise how serious it as and I realise why so much of the time she felt so bad. She was tired, lethargic, fatigued after tournaments particularly.”

Remarkably, despite the illness, Elena excelled achieving a top 50 world ranking and beating three top 10 players. The ranking meant the world to her.

Niño said: “The ranking for Bally was very important. I’ll never forget it, we broke top 50 in New York and I remember we were at dinner and we were just waiting on the rankings to come out and top 50 is big thing, it is a big thing, and I do remember Bal’s smile and she was very happy, very happy.”

The film also features Elena’s Federation Cup captain Judy Murray, her former coaches Jimmy Mackechnie, Alan Jones and Jo Durie; fellow players Anne Keothavong and Naomi Cavaday and some of her closest friends.

It is further illustrated with tennis match and training archive, Baltacha family photographs and drama reconstruction sequences featuring Elena’s niece and nephew, Ana and Alex Baltacha.

Elena Baltacha is the latest documentary from the award-winning filmmaker Margot McCuaig and her production company, purpleTV.

purpleTV has won the RTS Best Sport Film award on three previous occasions, for Jock Stein, Jim Baxter and Tommy Burns.

Writer, producer and director Margot McCuaig, said: “Elena Baltacha didn’t just pursue her dreams she embodied them.

“Her strength and resilience was manifested in the empowering manner in which she led both on and off the court.

“As a Scottish national hero it is only just that her life should be celebrated in film and her achievements treasured as part of our rich cultural firmament.”

• Elena Baltacha will be broadcast on BBC Alba on Sunday, December 1, at 9pm. It will be repeated on Thursday, December 5, at 10.15pm and Friday, December 6, at 9pm.